A domestic star, a regular title-winner since moving to Spain and a key component for his international side, Ivan Rakitic is one of the most consistent and reliable attacking midfielders around at present.
Regarded by many as a talent one rung below that of the superstars in his position—Paul Pogba and Thomas Muller, for example—Rakitic is equally important to Barcelona as any of those players are to their respective teams, with so many facets to his game beyond his technical ability.
Currently starring at UEFA Euro 2016 with Croatia, Rakitic recently enjoyed another tremendous season. He was one of the players that Barcelona boss Luis Enrique relied upon most, being one of just six players at the club to total more than 4,000 minutes of action in 2015-16.
Position and role
It's easy to note Rakitic's position at Barca: he plays central midfield, with an emphasis on attacking. But the overall system at the club is fluid, and Rakitic plays a key role in maintaining balance in both halves.
A standard 4-3-3 setup, Rakitic is almost always the right-sided of the two more-offensive midfielders, ahead of Sergio Busquets and partnering with Andres Iniesta.
Rakitic's role at Barcelona has remained constant in his two seasons, which is a contrast to his earlier years in Spain. Under different coaches at Sevilla, Rakitic alternately played as a true central midfielder in a double pivot, as the deepest in a three and, in a 4-2-3-1, as both a No. 10 and from the flank. He was a regular scorer in his final seasons in Andalucia and has continued finding the net at important times for his current club.
At the international level, a fluid (and frequently shifting) midfield usually sees him play centrally, but with the freedom to break forward and support the attack as required.
Rakitic's main characteristic is his technical ability in possession. He strikes the ball well; his passing is regular, purposeful and inventive (without being on an Iniesta level of incision); and he can take on a player or two with a quick change of pace and forward motion. Those are all hallmarks of his game and expected for a midfielder at Barcelona—but Rakitic's movement is what really sets him apart.
The Croatian is always available to receive possession. In the same way Busquets is a recycling point for possession, so too is Rakitic from higher upfield—a means to keep pressure on the opposition and keep the defence moving, rather than going backwards into space where Busquets awaits. Anywhere the ball is held in the final third, Rakitic will find himself space on the diagonal from the player in possession, giving an angle for a pass or committing a defender to step out of line to close him down.
If the latter happens, that opens a gap behind him for the forwards to exploit—and Barcelona have the creative players in place to strike.
When the game is more stretched or Barcelona counter-attack, Rakitic's runs down the right channel are a familiar sight, dovetailing with Dani Alves or Sergi Roberto from right-back and overlapping to allow a short crossing opportunity.
Finally, and most importantly during his first season at the club, Rakitic was the line breaker from midfield beyond the strikers.
Xavi and Iniesta were pass-masters as Barca collected the 2014-15 treble, but it was Rakitic who made the surging runs into the penalty area to make up the unexpected extra presence in blue and red, and he was rewarded with plenty of goalscoring chances for his efforts. In 2015-16 those runs weren't replicated as often, at least until the latter part of the season, when he again came up big for his team when it mattered most.
Rakitic has become a very well-rounded attacking midfielder, contributing from all angles to Barca's offensive march toward titles.
Possessing a rocket shot from range, the Croat has more than once found relief for his team when scoring from outside the box after they had been frustrated with their passing approach, though it's not something he utilises with enormous frequency.
His quick, one-touch passes around the edge of the box and his ability to run to the far-post or past the striker during build-up play are both of paramount importance.
It's worth noting that, per WhoScored.com, Rakitic averages a combined 2.2 shots or key passes per game. That's not a huge total for an attacking midfielder (for context: James Rodriguez tallies 3.8 for Real Madrid, Thomas Muller 4.9 for Bayern Munich and Paul Pogba a full 5.0 for Juventus, all per WhoScored.com), but it's indicative of both how the team is set up to favour the forwards at Barca and Rakitic's effectiveness when he does look for the killer moment.
His nine goals over the course of the season were rarely worthless; he netted both in a 2-0 Champions League win over BATE, scored in draws against Deportivo La Coruna and Villarreal and, most crucially of all, scored Barcelona's opener against Real Betis.
That last strike came near the end of the season, pushing Barca's revival towards the title in a game when they struggled to break down the opposition. Once more, it came as a result of his willingness to run beyond the forward line (something no other Barcelona midfielder does) and his capitalising on a defensive mix-up.
Out of possession
Rakitic's work on the ball is what he is most known for, but there's another reason Luis Enrique picks him so often: his amazing work ethic and tactical appreciation of the game.
Barca's No. 4 possesses a diligent willingness to track back and counter opponents' attempts to break—all the way to the edge of his own box if required. His time spent earlier in his career in alternative midfield roles no doubt contributes to his success at reading the game, and he's a selfless player with his covering work.
It's also part of the reason he gets substituted with frequency: In 24 of his 57 appearances, Rakitic was removed during the match by Luis Enrique, saving him from fatigue and for tougher fixtures ahead once the game in question was secured of a positive result.
Rakitic remains a great foil for Iniesta's ability in possession and brings more than his share of invention to the attack, but he's much more than just a secondary attacking midfielder for Barcelona.